22 April 2015
Transcript - #2015046, 2015

Interview with Rafael Epstein and Mark Dreyfus QC Shadow Attorney-General, 774 ABC Melbourne

SUBJECTS: Labor’s superannuation tax changes, tax white paper, intelligence sharing agreement with Iran, European people smuggling operations, Operation Sovereign Borders

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Joining me for Fight Club in the studio is Mark Dreyfus. He is the Shadow Attorney-General, he is the Member for Isaacs, part of Bill Shorten’s Opposition team. Mark, thanks for coming in.

MARK DREYFUS:

Very good to be with you Raf.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Joining us from, I don’t know if it’s cloudy or sunny, Ararat is Bruce Billson the Small Business Minister and the Member for Dunkley. Minister, good afternoon.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Hi Raf, best wishes to you Mark, and your listeners.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Now we have got you on Skype, I think that connection is going to hold because I would prefer you to be on that than the phone, we will see how we go. Sounding okay so far.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Okay I will try and sound like I am in the studio with you and Mark.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Good. Good. Look, Mark Dreyfus I will start with you. Last night Bill Shorten, today Chris Bowen announcing superannuation policy, in simple terms – taxing those with more, a little more.

Is it drastically different to the effort you made just towards the dying days of Labor Government? Is it significantly different?

MARK DREYFUS:

It is a slightly tighter approach but it is reasonable and it is fair. It has been fully costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office and it is exactly the right approach. We have also confirmed, because we are conscious of the need not to make changes too often, that these are the only changes we will make in our term of Government if we are elected at the next election.

But they are the right thing to do, this bringing in tax on people that are receiving more than $75,000 from their superannuation fund in pension phase and of course it is only a tax on the amounts…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

So it is an increased tax as the money is coming out?

MARK DREYFUS:

It is an increased tax on the money coming out, but only on the money over $75,000. It will still be tax free on the first $75,000 and it is a change to people on defined benefits schemes – removal of a concession there, again on the amount over $75,000 and the third change is at the input level where the threshold presently for the kick up from 15% to 30% is $300,000…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

So this is where the money is going in?

MARK DREYFUS:

Where the money is going in and we proposed that that threshold come down from $300,000 to $250,000. They are all reasonable and fair changes. They raise $14 billion for the Budget over a decade.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Is that just sort of down the side of the couch money on super? I think the super bill is something like $300 - $400 billion over a decade so if you are talking about that amount – over $14 billion over a decade – it is not much of a difference is it?

MARK DREYFUS:

We think it is responsible management of the Budget and responsible management of the superannuation system, which is the way in which in its more than 20 years of existence, we have already seen is the way to provide for sustainable retirement incomes for Australians.

It is a very good system, that is why it was introduced by Labor in Government and that is why we’re proposing to continue with it.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Okay. Bruce Billson, there seems to be actually quite broad consensus even from the super funds that the concessions on super are too generous. Is it something that the Government can support?

MINISTER BILLSON:

It is one of the range of issues the Tax White Paper is actually looking at Raf, and I think you would have heard a range of ideas about how the superannuation concessions might be better targeted; that it would still deliver encouragement for people to provide for their own retirement and be able to be afforded in the longer term.

So there are a few ideas around that. This one we will obviously have to have a bit of a look at because there was something, as you alluded to in your opening question to Mark, that was a bit similar to this when Labor was in office and it was one of…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

At least it is a familiar idea…

MINISTER BILLSON:

Yes it is. Last time it was raised by Labor it was announced but then there was no capacity to legislate it -Treasury said it was a bit hard to do.

We are going to have a look at that, see if there are some other ideas that are around and then have a sober and sensible conversation. That is what the Tax White Paper process is about.

How do we set ourselves up as a country to have the tax revenues that we need to provide for essential works and services; and that they are reliable and durable; and we can count on them into the future?

And at the same time make sure there is reasonable encouragement for people to provide for their own retirement where they are able to do so and then have a good safety net for those that are not in that position.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Sure, but have you ruled out any super changes?

MINISTER BILLSON:

No.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I mean I am assuming you would not propose anything like this until the next election.

MINISTER BILLSON:

That is right. What we have ruled out is any sort of unilateral changes between now and the next election.

We have got the tax white paper – for those that have not had a look at the rethink document, around page 70 is a juicy area for people to have a bit of a read about; and if through that work and that objective sober analysis there is some sensible changes that we think are worthy of support then we will take that to the next election.

But we have made it clear that there is no adverse unexpected changes planned in this area because it has been just mucked around with so much, we need to get it right.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Okay but can I get a statement of principle from you – the super concessions last time I looked, are worth as much as the pension bill, I mean there is a tonne of money that is not collected in concessions, it is equal to what the Government pays out in pensions.

Is it something that has to be looked at, those concessions or you like the system as it is?

MINISTER BILLSON:

No it is being examined as part of that Tax White Paper process because what we are aiming to do, and I think what all sides of politics would like to see, and that is people in a position to provide for their own retirement to do so. And there are certain incentives that are there now.

If you are paying albeit a concessional rate of tax on the money going into your super fund and then you are paying an albeit concessional rate of tax on the earnings that that money invested is earning whilst it is in the fund, then in general terms you are not required to be paying tax a third time when you receive that as a pension.

That is the broad construct that is here at the moment. Mark has touched on other aspects of those concessions where they cut in and cut out.

The thing that we need to look at is just what will give us that sustainable retirement income system for the future and also make sure…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

They are all nice sentiments though Bruce Billson but it sort of, at this stage of Government…

MINISTER BILLSON:

I thought that was what you were asking for though was it not Raf? About principles and I am giving you some principles.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

It is, but it is a sentiment, not even sure that it gets close to being a principle to be honest.

MINISTER BILLSON:

I reckon that is a bit rough Raf, I would reject that completely.

I am outlining what the public policy goals are, the many moving parts that are in this space and a sensible process that we have in place, mindful that the previous Government announced 96 separate tax and superannuation changes and did not legislate them after making the announcement.

So it is obviously not completely straight forward but not beyond our wit either and that is why we are working through it in a systematic, sensible way and then where there is a need to make changes and a case for change, putting that to the electorate so that the Australian public are on board for any changes that may need to be made.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Mark Dreyfus, how do you know when you make the change, you are actually going to collect the money? I know the Parliamentary Budget Office in partial they say you are going to save money but surely you just put your assets somewhere else, people can restructure their affairs can they not?

MARK DREYFUS:

One of the things that the Parliamentary Budget Office does in its costings is look at possible behavioural changes that result of changes to the settings. That is factored in, in that estimate from the Parliamentary Budget Office that this will raise $14 billion over 10 years.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

So they expect people’s behaviour to change. Is it indexed by the way, that $75,000 which is when the tax kicks in, I assume that goes up over time?

MARK DREYFUS:

I cannot tell you that detail, but at the moment the proposed setting is at $75,000 which will be super accounts of around $1.5 million – you will start to pay tax at 15% on every dollar over $75,000.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Let us move on to Iran. The Foreign Julie Bishop has been to Iran, which I think is the first time in around 12 years. There is an agreement to share intelligence with Iran and Andrew Wilkie the Independent MP is very upset with this. He thinks that we should not be sharing or we should have concerns at least with sharing intelligence with Iran.

I will put this to you first Bruce Billson - he thinks there could be an element of torture involved in Iran’s collection of intelligence. Is that something that is worth worrying about?

MINISTER BILLSON:

We are always interested in the source of information, particularly if it is intelligence that we seek to rely upon. You would be aware that there are protocols around the world that we have with governments that share interests and goals of our country that we do share intelligence.

Clearly Iran is trying to come in from the cold. As you know they have been a little bit of a pariah state for many years. They have got a new leadership – the new President Rouhani is keen to get Iran back in the mainstream of international thinking and opinion.

They have got some policies and practices that do not accord with ours. You would have seen, I think it was several dozen people, executed just in recent weeks and that was one of the topics that Julie Bishop raised with them.

An idea to share intelligence just does not mean an open door for information to flow two ways. The protocols needed to be developed.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

But do we normally vet intelligence in that way?

MINISTER BILLSON:

We do. We vet the way in which we receive information and then on the basis of which we then assess it and may use it.

That is all what the intelligence agencies and ongoing discussions will be about.

But I think what we should take out of Julie Bishop’s visit to Iran is this new President Rouhani is trying to end decades of isolationists.

There is work going on with their nuclear program.

That P5+1 discussion involving the permanent heads of the Security Council in Germany that is all about bringing them more into the mainstream of international opinion. I think that is something that we should be seeking to encourage.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Mark Dreyfus, any concerns about sharing intelligence? They are not far removed from a pariah state; all of a sudden we are sharing files with them.

MARK DREYFUS:

Absolutely. There is a reason why the tougher sanctions we have against any country in the world are against Iran. We have to remember its conduct as a country over the past several decades now, and as Bill Shorten said, let us not be naïve about who we are dealing with.

That said, the enemy of my enemy is my friend for some purposes and we have a common enemy in fighting ISIL in the Middle East. If there is useful information to be gained, and I share Andrew Wilkie’s concern about torture – we have got to oppose torture anywhere it occurs in the world.

That should be an absolute…..

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

We get lots of information from the Americans that arguably in some cases has come through torture. They have certainly been put through the ringer by their own Congress on it.

How tough is that filter that we apply over intelligence from other countries?

MARK DREYFUS:

We are opposed to torture. Clearly there is some problem about knowing exactly how certain information came into the possession of the person giving it to you, but we have got to take a stand every single time there is the slightest suggestion that torture has been involved and that would be with the US or with Iran or any other country.

The point I am making about Iran, is if there is information that Iran can provide us that is useful in the fight against ISIL, we should look at that information.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Ok. Let us move on to the really truly disastrous deaths over the weekend. In the Mediterranean, as many as 950 people are thought to have died when that boat from Africa on its way to Italy, a Portuguese merchant ship pulled up alongside for some reason, we do not know exactly why, the immigrant boat tipped over. As I said, 950 people died.

The Prime Minister, both grieving for those who died, but also perhaps suggesting that Europe follow Australia’s lead. Have a listen.

Prime Minister: And I suppose we must grieve, we must grieve for the loss. But at the same time we must resolve to stop this terrible problem and the only way you can stop the deaths is to stop the people smuggling trade. The only way you can stop the deaths is in fact to stop the boats.

So stopping the boats. Bruce Billson I will put this to you – is that the Prime Minister saying Italy and other European countries should mimic your policies?

MINISTER BILLSON:

I think the Prime Minister was reflecting on reality in our region; that if you want to guard against the risk or tragedy and loss of life by people smugglers then you need to take down their operations.

What you saw in that extraordinarily tragic event was people smugglers deciding to abandon the vessel. They had pursued a profit motive, no interest or welfare concern for the people whose misery they were seeking to profit from and the result was a loss of life. Now Europe is having a very challenging discussion.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

You cannot turn the boats back there the way you could coming out of Indonesia. That is a multi-billion dollar industry.

MINISTER BILLSON:

I would not seek to be an expert on what is happening on the south of the Mediterranean. That strait of water has been extraordinarily busy with people smugglers plying their trade with people out of Africa seeking to access the Mediterranean end of Europe and you have seen Italian officials and maritime officials and navy and rescue operations – just devastated by the human tragedy that they are having to contend with.

Some idea that are being discussed is whether there is a more effective way of processing people seeking asylum that are fleeing persecution on the African continent before they take these sea journeys.

These are difficult issues, difficult issues that we have had to confront and whether we have experience and insights that are useful for the Europeans- Well that will be for them to decide but there is no safe way of facilitating people smugglers on the seas. There is no safe way of doing it, and that is a harsh reality that we have to confront and now Europe has to deal with that as well.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Mark Dreyfus is it a totally different policy problem because of the scale?

MARK DREYFUS:

It shows what a small problem we have in Australia when you look at the sheer scale, the hundreds of thousands of people that have arrived in Italy, in Greece, throughout Europe. The millions and millions of people displaced by the Syrian conflict effectively on the doorstop of Europe. The millions of people who are displaced in various ways by conflicts on the African continent – that is what is confronting Europe.

I am appalled actually at the language I just heard from the Prime Minister. What he said was: I suppose we must grieve for this loss. What is he talking about? Of course we must grieve for this loss.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Maybe he was just searching for a thought.

MARK DREYFUS:

I suppose we must grieve for this loss? I do not think anybody should be in any doubt that we should grieve for this loss and if the Prime Minister is to be taken as suggesting that somehow policy options that have been used by this Government, the Abbott Government here in Australia, might have some application to Europe, I doubt it is what I would say - because they are almost certainly in breach of the obligations that nations have under the Refugees Convention.

Every European nation has signed the Refugees Convention. That is why you see Italy sending its coastguard out to look for refugee boats; its coastguard out to make sure that people do not die at sea.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I will give Bruce Billson a chance to respond to your point about the Prime Minister but, the ALP policy is also sending people away from the route from Indonesia to Australia. Is it not that the ALP’s platform is also contributing to the flow of people?

If they cannot come to Australia, they might try the Mediterranean. Are you concerned that your previous government policy might be sending people into harm’s way?

MARK DREYFUS:

I think that the only answer is international cooperation. That is why working with countries in our region is very important and all countries of the world have to face the fact that this is a global problem – the flow of people wanting to escape persecution, terror, death in war throughout the world is something that all countries have to deal with.

The solution that was hit upon after the Second World War was the Refugees Convention which Australia signed under the Menzies Government in the early 50s, and it was extended to the whole world some decades later. It was initially a European convention.

We have to keep working at it but unilateral action is never going to be the answer. It will have to be international cooperation.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I will return to both Bruce Billson and Mark Dreyfus in a moment.

[Traffic report]

Just some of your texts. We have no boat deaths. There is only one solution. The ALP has its head in the sand to suggest otherwise; someone else saying but the boats have not stopped, people are being set back.

And on Labor’s super changes – More tuckshop budgeting. A great disincentive for people to save for retirement. More people on pensions. That is from Rusty in Middle Park.

Mark Dreyfus is with us from the ALP, he is the Shadow Attorney-General. Bruce Billson is the Small Business Minister.

Bruce I do want to get to calls but just briefly, Mark Dreyfus questioned the Prime Minister’s rhetoric in response to that European tragedy.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Cheap crack. Pointless point scoring.

The Government has made it clear this is a tragedy of horrendous proportions. The Prime Minister was asked about what learnings we might have, obviously being circumspect, otherwise Mark and some of the Prime Minister’s critics would come out going how dare we lecture Europe.

Raf, the issue is too important to get sucked into that nonsense from Mark. Let us take some questions.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Let us take a few callers.

Richard has called from Spotswood. Richard go for it.

CALLER:

Hello Raf. I would like to talk about the genocide in West Papua carried out by the Indonesian Government…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I am not sure that is what you called to talk about and I am not sure I have got time to get into it. So let us have a chat to Chris in Ferntree Gully.

CALLER:

Good day Raf. Raf, as an Australian I am absolutely ashamed. I hear that our new Minister for Immigration has offered these poor refugees money in Nauru to go to Cambodia. Now to put it in perspective, these people have got nothing and to dangle cash in their face to say ‘please leave, please solve our problem’ – I think it is the most distasteful, despicable thing that has ever been done.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Ok Chris let me put that to the Minister and then hopefully we will get a chance for Mark Dreyfus to respond as well.

Bruce Billson, the deal with Cambodia?

MINISTER BILLSON:

I take Chris’ point but sometimes it takes us into where there is some confusion about what the Refugee Convention seeks to do. It seeks to protect people against persecution and to find them a safe place and asylum from those threats.

It is not about economic opportunity, it is not about prospects of their employment or quality of life. In that respect, we are facilitating people with a legitimate and genuine fear of persecution who are found to be refugees to settle in a country where refuge can be provided; and we are facilitating that because that is part of our policy that says if you want to come to Australia unlawfully and you are found to be a refugee, a settlement outcome in Australia is not an option that is available to you.

That is taking off the table the business model the people smugglers seek to sell and this is the outcome of that resolve.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Chris what do you make of that?

CALLER:

I cannot believe I am hearing it. I cannot believe that I am hearing a human being saying that Cambodia is the place to go; they cannot even handle the impoverished people there. Why do you not get a decent country to send them to? I just cannot believe that an intelligent person would even dream it up.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce Billson a quick response and then I want to leave some space for Mark Dreyfus as well.

MINISTER BILLSON:

This is the issue about the persecution, being relieved of that genuine fear of persecution. That is the undertaking we have signed up to through the refugee convention. That is what we are facilitating.

It is not about economic opportunities and outcomes. That is not what the refugee process is about and citizens that are looking to start a free life and help build their own future along with the future of Cambodia, there is an opportunity there and some have chosen that opportunity.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Mark Dreyfus, what do you think of the Cambodia deal?

MARK DREYFUS:

I am tempted to remind Bruce that his party opposed the agreement that we struck in government with Malaysia, a country far more advanced, far richer with far greater respect for human rights than Cambodia.

Cambodia is one of the poorest countries of the world, it is one up the most corrupt countries in the world and it is one of the countries which least respects human rights and I cannot think of a less appropriate place for us to be paying a country some $40 million; we do not know what the terms of it are, to supposedly take refugees.

Let us see what happens but from where I am sitting now, it does not look to me or Labor to be an appropriate outcome for people sitting in Nauru.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I want to try and end on a positive note if I can.

Bruce Billson just briefly, a 20 second description of Ararat – what is it looking like?

MINISTER BILLSON:

It is dark clouds surrounded by beautiful blue skies. No rain. Great place to be. If your listeners want to come on an adventure, come to western Victoria – a great part of a great State. Although I think some storms are coming.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I am sure they are. Bruce Billson thanks for your time. He is the Small Business Minister in Tony Abbott’s Government.

Mark Dreyfus, best thing you saw today? Weather, person, meal, interaction, anything…..something nice you saw today?

Oh he is struggling, he must be having a dark day.

MARK DREYFUS:

No. Being back in Melbourne was great. Because I was in the United States last week. So it is great to be back at home.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Where did you go in the US?

MARK DREYFUS:

I went to New York, Washington and Boston to talk to counter terrorism people, and talk about countering violent extremism with the US Attorney General.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Right, so not so positive. With Eric Holder?

MARK DREYFUS:

Yes.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Right, interesting, we will have to save that conversation for another time. Mark Dreyfus is the Shadow Attorney General and the Member for Isaacs. Thanks for coming in Mark. Thanks very much Raf, thanks Bruce.